Water Heaters 101 Baltimore MD
Water Heaters 101
Your water heater is a pretty simple system, but that doesn’t mean it can’t develop problems down the line. Understanding how it works—and what to do when it doesn’t—can help you avoid serious hot water heater issues.
I Have a Water Heater?
Seriously, most people forget about their water heaters. Usually tucked away well out of traffic patterns in a storage closet, or in the corner of a garage, water heaters normally sit silently and do their jobs without a lot of fuss. But forgetting about them entirely can be a big mistake.
What’s the Worst That can Happen?
Unlike some systems in the home, when a water heater goes south on you, it doesn’t always just stop working. In certain circumstances, you can find yourself standing in 40 gallons or more of hot, scalding water. Worse yet, you risk explosions, fires, or the release of deadly carbon monoxide gas into your home. A cold shower’s looking pretty good about now, eh?
Don’t fret. This is just to impress upon you the importance of keeping an eye on your water heater. An annual inspection, coupled with some simple, regular maintenance, is usually all you need to worry about. But first, a little background.
Water Heater Basics
Water heaters are pretty simple on the face of it, and they’ve changed little in the past 50 years. Thanks to some key refinements, they are certainly better than they used to be, with longer life spans, higher efficiency, and more safety features that reduce the risk of injury and property damage.
All water heaters convert energy to heat, and then transfer that heat to water. They are connected to a cold water supply pipe and have at least one pipe for outgoing hot water that directs the heated water to taps and appliances throughout the house.
Though there is a variety of water heaters on the market, including electric, propane, tankless versions, and even solar-powered models, the most common in the United States is a holding tank fueled by natural gas.
These consist of a steel tank with a heating element at the bottom and a flue running down the center of the tank to vent the carbon monoxide that is a by-product of burning natural gas.
You’ll also see some sort of thermostat control on the body of the tank that allows you to shut off the gas and control the pilot light. These thermostats are equipped with a temperature-sensing probe that automatically shuts off the gas if they detect that the pilot light goes out or fails to light.
The interior of the tank is bonded with vitreous glass to protect it from rusting. Despite this protective sheath, there is always some small amount of steel exposed, caused by limitations in the coating process. That exposed steel is vulnerable to rust. To protect the steel from rusting, the manufacturers install sacrificial anode rods in the tanks, typically made of magnesium or aluminum. Through the process of electrolysis, the anode rod corrodes, instead of the tank. The tank will rust if the anode rod is completely consumed, unless you replace the anode rod. This is the most common cause of problems with water heaters.
Preventive Maintenance and Safety
For the purposes of this article, we’re going to assume that water heater was properly installed, and that it passed the home inspection.
Let’s talk preventive maintenance. Here are some basic steps to maintaining your water heater.
First, eyeball it. Water heaters have lots of rust protection inside, but very little on the outside, so watch out for leaks. Also check for staining, flaking paint, or corrosion on the surface of the tank. External rust can cause your tank to fail just as surely as internal rust. Remember that the exterior shell might look fine on the outside, while consumed with rust on the inside. However, if nothing looks out of the ordinary, move on to regular maintenance duties.
The two principle steps to maintaining your water heater are periodically draining the tank to remove sediment, and testing the temperature and pressure release valve (T&P) to ensure that it is working properly.
As your water heater operates, sediment forms. That sediment is actually calcium carbonate, a mineral present in the water, which is precipitated out through heating. It settles to the bottom of your tank, and can shorten the life of your water heater; reduce its efficiency; clog valves, lines and the recirculating pump; and even provide a haven for anaerobic bacteria. How often you drain your tank depends a lot on the water quality where you live. Areas that have very hard water require more frequent draining to keep sediment levels low. The frequency is anywhere from 6 months to 1 year.
The T&P valve is critical for preventing explosions due to overpressure, as it automatically releases water at certain critical pressure levels and prevents the tank from exploding. Test this valve periodically to ensure that it opens and closes properly, so it won’t fail when you need it most.
NOTE: If you’ve never performed these tasks before, it's a good idea to hire a technician to do it for you the first time, and ask them to show you how to do it yourself. While it’s not excessively complicated, there are potential hazards involved. The risks of doing it incorrectly are great in comparison to a minimal service fee. When you see what’s involved, you may feel confident that you are capable of doing it yourself; otherwise, let the pros do it.
Finally, install a carbon monoxide alarm close to your water heater. Carbon monoxide is odorless and colorless, but if your water heater does not vent properly or begins to back draft, those deadly fumes can enter your house and endanger your family.
If everything is working properly, check the water temperature with a cooking thermometer to make sure it’s set to your families’ comfort level and to ensure safety. If the water is too hot, it can scald or cause injury. Conversely, some people set their water temperature low to try to be economical. If the water isn’t hot enough, it can harbor bacteria. A good intermediate setting for your water is 130 degrees.
Tanks for the Memories
Nothing lasts forever. Your water heater is rated by its estimated life span, which is typically anywhere from 6 to 12 years. With faithful maintenance, you can beat those numbers, help ensure your family’s safety, and save money in the process.
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